If you watched the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off show Private Practice when it was on ABC a few years ago, you know who Dr. Gabriel Fife is. The genetics specialist was introduced in the third season as a love interest who worked for a rival medical practice. The character used a wheelchair, and so does the actor who played him: Michael Patrick Thornton.
Private Practice went off the air in 2013, but national TV watchers loss is Chicago’s gain: Michael Patrick Thornton is a native Chicagoan, and now that he’s back in town full-time we get to see him live on stage here.
I myself appeared on stage last week at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre with Michael Patrick Thornton, and after sharing the stage with him, you know, I just call him Michael. We were there with other disability advocates at “Greater Together,” Chicago’s first Cultural Accessibility Summit.
My job was to give a short testimonial on how important it is for civic and cultural leaders (hundreds of them were there in the audience) to support accessible programming at the museums, theatres and foundations they work for. Michael was there in his real-life role as the Artistic Director & Co-founder of The Gift Theatre in Chicago. He talked candidly with the audience about the spinal stroke he suffered at age 23 and what it was like to emerge from a coma three days later on life support.
“It took a while for doctors to figure out what happened to me — it was very Dr. House-like,” he said, the sound of dark humor in his voice. He left the hospital paralyzed from the neck down, and after years of hard work at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago he’s regained some of his mobility.
Michael Patrick Thornton’s interest in theater started when he was in high school, and he and William Nedved had founded The Gift Theatre Company two years before Michael’s spinal stroke. Michael didn’t take much of a break from The Gift during his recovery — a 2006 story in the Chicago Reader marveled that months after suffering a second stroke during rehab, Thornton “was directing Language of Angels, holding auditions at RIC while still an inpatient.” During the Q&A last week an audience member thanked Thornton for applauding the work the Chicago arts community is doing to improve accessibility for patrons, but she wondered if the same could be said for performers. “Have things improved for actors in wheelchairs, too?”
Michael answered with an immediate “no.” Actors with disabilities are woefully underrepresented on stage and screen, he said. “I’m pretty much it.”
He told the audience that one thing he can do to advance the cause for other actors with disabilities is to take on roles as someone’s best friend, or a lawyer, or a criminal, people like that — avoid lead roles in inspirational stories about heroes with disabilities who triumph over adversity. “I want parts where the wheelchair never once gets mentioned.”
Michael Patrick Thornton played Iago in Gift’s production of Othello last year, and when I talked to him after our presentation last week he told me how thrilled he is to be directing the world premiere of David Rabe’sGood for Otto at Gift next month.
But wait. There’s more: in March of next year he has the lead role in Gift’s production of Richard III, which will be staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre to accommodate larger audiences. Here’s a prepared statement from Michael about the upcoming season, which will be The Gift’s 15th:
Great theater asks great questions. Our milestone anniversary season asks: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ In perfect circuitousness, we begin where many of us first met — at Steppenwolf. In collaboration with our lead production sponsor, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, we will present a definitive ‘Richard III’ for the ages, performed in conjunction with Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. It will re-define what disability, ability, and Shakespeare’s villain can look like.
Good for Otto opens at The Gift Theatre in Chicago’s Jefferson park neighborhood next month, and Richard III opens in March, 2016 at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted in Chicago. Mark your calendars now and look for me at both performances — I’ll be in the audience this time.